Jelmer Evers, a teacher in the Netherlands, writes about a PBS NewsHour feature on a teacher-powered school: K-8 Mission Hill in Boston.

This blog is cross-posted from Jelmer Evers’ website with permission of the author.

Slowly but steadily, #teacher agency, or #teacher leadership, is getting more attention in the mainstream media.  PBS Newshour had an item on one of the most prolific examples of this trend: #teacher led schools.

Lots of educational systems around the world are plagued by high turnover rates and job-dissatisfaction. As one of the teachers in the report says, she lost inspiration and wasn’t able to teach as she deemed fit anymore. Her child-centered approach fell out of favor as testing and accountability became the new buzzwords. “A tsunami of data-collection frenzy.” Instead of good education, we got flawed data.

In an environment like this, it is extremely hard to uphold your integrity as a teacher. Her professional ethos got the upper hand and she decided to quit. This hostile top-down climate has made teachers’ jobs a lot harder.

Thus the higher dissatisfaction, higher turnover rates of teachers, and a continuing weakening of the profession. Something you see in a lot of developed countries, including the Netherlands.

But instead of leaving, teachers are also taking matters into their own hands. One of the most promising examples of this are the teacher-led (aka teacher-powered) schools. The video above features Mission Hill in Boston, with the inspiring motto: “The freedom to teach and the freedom to learn.” As one of the teachers at Mission Hill says, “We’re not just democratic in theory, but in practice.” Professionalism isn’t something that can be done to you, it is something you do.

Good education isn’t some prescribed set of rules–it is something you achieve through an ongoing discourse within the school community, including students and parents.

As one Mission Hill teacher said: “Anything that comes down the pike is a conversation.”

Following this logic, no teacher-led school will look the same. At Mission Hill, they do have a principal, but she calls herself lead-teacher.

In Trusting Teachers with School Success, Kim Farris-Berg and Edward J. Dirkswager identified nine areas in which teachers may have autonomy, but rarely have it. At Mission Hill “all decisions, curriculum, budget, hiring, are voted on by the entire staff.”

The book says: “Nothing goes forward until everyone agrees. When we make decisions, we have a raise of hands. So, five, you strongly agree, four, you agree, you have some reservations, but you can live with it. But if you put a one, you disagree and we stop. We don’t go on until everyone can say they have a five or a four. With this authority, teachers decide the look and feel of their classrooms. There’s lots of low lighting and soothing music. Arts and crafts are everywhere, all part of Mission Hill’s personality.”

 “We’re not going to use a packaged curriculum. We’re going to use students’ voices to shape our curriculum, that we’re going to shape our curriculum around their interests. I think, at most other schools, it’s a lot of, you will follow this. You must follow this, and there’s never any room to breathe.”

There are lots of different models, and Mission Hill has real autonomy. But what teacher-led schools DO have in common is a focus on students instead of grades. Moreover, they have a low turnover rate and job satisfaction is high. To me, agency is key here, for both teachers and students.

But that agency shouldn’t end at the school building. As Tony Wagner rightly says in the report, we should look further–at the entire educational system. Rene Kneyber and I have argued in Het Alternatief (Dutch; in English: The Alternative) that teacher agency is something that has to be embedded on every level of an educational system to achieve real and meaningful change. We call this #flip the system. We have to look for inspirational examples like Mission Hill to show us how to get there.

For more resources on teacher leadership see:


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